Despite the use of steel pens in some Regency novels I have read, and in some movies supposedly set in the Regency, the only type pen available to writers during that decade was the quill. A Mr. Wise did invent a steel pen in 1803, but they were extremely expensive, temperamental, and he sold very few of them over a very short period. Steel pens were not on the market during the Regency. It was not until 1830 that steel pens became readily available, when a Mr. Perry took out a patent for an affordable pen. In the years that followed, several other inventors took out patents for their own version of the steel pen. Over the course of the following decades, the quill pen was slowly supplanted by that of steel. But all that happened long after the Regency.
Though it is not certain when the feathers of birds first began to be used to make writing implements, they were the only source of pen-making materials during the middle ages and right through the Regency. In fact, it is from the feather that we have acquired our word "pen." It comes from the Latin penna, which means "feather." Now, how a feather becomes a pen …
The feathers of geese, swans and crows were the primary sources of quills for the making of pens. Only those large feathers at the ends of the wing were used. The quill is not the whole feather, but only the shaft. Each bird wing would yield about five quills suitable for pen-making. Goose feathers were the principal source of pen quills. In the course of a year, a healthy goose could produce about twenty quills. The majority of English quills came from Lincolnshire. But Britain was not able to produce enough goose quills to meet its own pen-making needs. During the decade of the Regency, goose quills in particular, were imported by the millions from the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Germany, Poland and Russia each year. Vast flocks of geese were raised in these countries for the sole purpose of producing quills.
Once the feathers had been gathered, they were sorted by grade. There were three grades of feathers, based on the quality of the quill. The length and thickness of the quill was the primary criteria for determining value. The longest and largest of the quills were the most valuable and were designated "primes." Next in quality and value were "seconds," and the smallest quills were called "pinions."
A pen cannot be made from a quill fresh from the bird’s wing. Feathers were prepared for pen-making by the quill-dresser. The process was referred to as quill-dutching, as it is believed it was developed in Holland. When the feathers were first taken from the bird, they were covered with a membranous skin, and were too tough, but too soft to be easily cut. They were also opaque, as the vascular membrane inside the barrel of the quill was very strongly adhered. The quills were plunged into hot sand for a short time, which caused the outer skin to peel off, the membrane within the barrel shriveled and pulled away from the inside of the quill barrel. The heating process also hardened the quill barrel and made it transparent. This process was repeated several times, depending on the grade of the quill, the higher grades received more heat treatments. Care was taken to ensure that the quills were never heated too long, as excessive heat would damage the quill barrel. After this treatment, the quills were a pale brown or cream color.
The processed quills were not yet ready for market after dutching. In order to give them a uniform color and make them easier to split, they were briefly dipped into a diluted solution of aqua fortis. This gave the treated quills a uniform yellow color, and it did make them easier to split. But there were many professional penmen who felt that though this treatment improved the quills’ appearance, it impaired their quality by making the quill too brittle so that it would split under the pressure of constant writing. Therefore, a portion of quills were not treated with aqua fortis and were sold to law and mercantile clerks, who considered the untreated quills more durable.
After the quills were dressed and finished, there was one final step before they were ready to be packed for shipping. A portion of the barb, the flexible "feathery" part of the feather, closest to the base of the quills were trimmed away, so that they would take up less space in the package. Quills were usually bundled in packages of twenty-five or fifty. These packages were bound in bales of several hundred quills for their journey to the stationers’ shops.
However, quills were still not ready to be sold as they came from the quill-dresser. Each stationer who sold pens contracted with a pen-cutter to cut the dressed quills into pens ready for sale. An experienced pen-cutter could cut five to six hundred pens a day. With a small, very sharp knife, the pen-cutter cut away the point of the quill with an acutely angled cut. The placement of this cut was oriented with the curve of the feather so that it would curve back over the hand when it was in use. Right-handed people preferred quills from the left wing of the goose, while left-handers preferred quills from the right wing. The shriveled membrane which had fallen into the tip during dutching was then removed from the barrel of the quill. Next, the pen-cutter placed the quill on a flat surface with the opening up. He slipped the tip of his knife into the opening and cut a slit of about 3/8 of an inch, which runs to the end of the longer side of the angled cut previously made. The nib, the part of the pen that actually touches the writing surface, is then created by cutting away the corners on either side of the slit. The pen was finished from the outside by making a very small straight cut across the base of the nib to square it up and thin it to a fine writing point. The quill was now a pen.
As I noted above, goose quills were the most common quills used for pens. Jane Austen would have used goose quill pens to write her novels. Swan quills were used to make pens with very wide nibs, or writing points, as they were much larger and stronger than goose quills. Therefore, they could withstand the pressure necessary to make a wider pen stroke. Crow quills were used for pens requiring a very fine point. They were sturdy, but extremely flexible, making them ideal for cutting a nib which could lay down a reliably fine line. Crow quill pens were particularly popular with artists, draftsmen and cartographers. Some ladies also preferred crow quills, since with them they could write in a very small and elegant hand, which had become fashionable in the early nineteenth century. Occasionally, feathers from other birds would be used to make pens, but they were usually a novelty, or made for a unique and specific purpose. Quills from turkeys, pheasants, ravens, pelicans, eagles and peacocks were all occasionally used to make pens. However most stationers regularly stocked goose, swan and crow quill pens.
When one needed a new pen during the Regency, one purchased it at the local stationer’s shop. A well-cut quill pen could be used for quite a long time, if one was not heavy-handed or careless, before it would have to be re-cut. At that point, the pen-owner would have to re-cut his or her own nib using a pen-knife. A goose quill could be re-cut several times before so much of the shaft would be cut away that it was no longer strong enough to hold a useable nib point. As the pen was re-cut, more of the barb, the feathery bits, would also be cut away. Some professional penmen would cut away most of the barb as soon as they acquired their pens, since they felt the barb interfered with the efficient use of the pen. No self-respecting penman or woman of the Regency would be caught dead using the overly fluffy ostrich feather quill pens, or any other quill pen with a broad-plumed barb which are so often depicted in historical films. They may look romantic, but I can tell you from personal experience, they are a nuisance to actually use with any hope of writing legibly.
Today, with the ubiquitous ball-point pen everywhere, and with the computer keyboard slowly forcing even that into second place, we have lost the awareness of how pens of quill were made and used in the many centuries before our own. Light-weight, when well-cut and with a good ink, writing with a quill pen is a very pleasant experience for those who enjoy the process of writing. It was more work for the penman or woman than clicking a button or pulling off a cap, but it also, by its very nature, enabled one to write with a much more graceful and elegant hand. The Regency was nearly the end of the long period of widespread use of the quill pen, as the steel pen was introduced in 1830, and slowly but steadily gained in popularity through the nineteenth century. But the quill pen was still the only type of pen available during the Regency. So, dear authors, please be sure your Regency characters write their secret missives, love letters, or the entries in their diaries with a quill pen, since nothing else would have been available to them.
For more information about quill pens:
Johnston, Edward, Writing, Illuminating and Lettering. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, 1946.
Whalley, Joyce Irene, Writing Implements and Accessories: From the Roman Stylus to the Typewriter. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1975.